Get our free newsletter
This morning, Greater Greater Washington linked to an interesting post on Per Square Mile claiming that income inequality can be viewed from space. The difference, the post argues persuasively, is tree cover: Wealthy neighborhoods have lots of it, and poor neighborhoods don’t. There follow comparative satellite photos from various cities: a brown Rio favela alongside a leafy well-to-do Rio neighborhood, gray West Oakland next to swanky green Piedmont, etc.
I thought I’d apply the same test to D.C. If the theory’s correct, the areas west of the park ought to be far greener than those east of the river.
And indeed, west of Rock Creek Park, it holds up. The “establishment” parts of wealthy D.C. are, in fact, quite green. Here’s Palisades:
And Cleveland Park:
But it breaks down once you move east of Rock Creek Park, to neighborhoods whose wealth has only arrived in recent decades. Take a look at the U Street-Logan Circle area:
Or the Dupont/Downtown area:
By contrast, let’s look at the poorer areas you’d expect to be devoid of greenery. Here’s Anacostia:
And Congress Heights:
The difference here is the model of urban wealth we’re talking about. The rich neighborhoods in the Per Square Mile post are, by and large, of a more suburban model: residential, with single-family homes on relatively large plots of land, often requiring a car to get to work, bars, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Same with those in Upper Northwest D.C.
The increasingly wealthy neighborhoods of the eastern portion of Northwest D.C., by contrast, are compact and walkable, with people living in apartments or rowhouses and paying a premium to be near the action. East of the Anacostia, there’s less action (in the way of restaurants and bars and shopping), partly because there’s less walkability—-there are lots of single-family houses in residential areas. It’s a question of density, and in the smart-growth model of urban development, density is desirable and worth paying for.
In Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser describes two models of urban geography, as they relate to wealth. In cities with good public transit, wealthy people tend to live in the center of the city (think Dupont), where work and play are easily accessed by foot or a short subway ride. Less wealthy people live in a ring around the core area (think Brightwood or Anacostia); they can’t afford to live in the center, but they commute in by subway or bus. Around this ring is a ring of well-to-do suburbs (think Bethesda), where people own large houses and get around by car (or, in some cases, by train). Finally, there’s a ring of poorer people in the far-flung suburbs (think parts of Prince George’s County) who must travel great distances to get to work in the city.
In cities without good public transit and walkability, Glaeser writes, the two inner areas are merged and poor. The inner city is undesirable if you can’t get around easily, and so wealthier people prefer to live in safer, farther-out enclaves with plenty of space and good schools. It’s this model that’s largely represented in the Per Square Mile post—-but it’s not always what you find in cities like New York and D.C.